Tales From the Crypt: Castlevania's 20th Anniversary Blowout
Author: Kurt Kalata
Date: 26 July 2006
Twenty years is a long time in the video game world — four console generations, in fact. And through each generation, Konami's Castlevania series has been a mainstay. How has a simple side-scrolling action game rooted in old novels and corny monster movies managed to weather the storms of the industry and still produce some of the most critically-praised games in recent years?
Much of its appeal comes from its content. Castlevania is about exploring gothic castles and long deserted ruins. It's about slaying mythical creatures and thwarting ancient evils. It's about big, leather-clad men wielding whips and long-haired pretty boys meeting their destinies.
Castlevania is about gorgeous graphics that push game hardware to the limits. It's about extravagant artwork and brilliant music. From short synthesizer melodies to moody orchestrations, from blazing power ballads to trippy dance beats, from lush NES-era box art to the delicate brushwork of Ayami Kojima, Castlevania has become synonymous with audio-visual splendor.
Castlevania is about whipping candles — long-time Castlevania veterans have it down to a science. A forward movement, a press of the jump button, and carefully timed attack would unleash whatever power-up lie hidden behind the candle. The motion is simple, yet it's become as ingrained in the gamer collective subconscious as hitting question mark blocks with your head.
There's so much that defines Castlevania, in fact, that even producer Koji "IGA" Igarashi has difficulty pinning down its essence. "I've been asked this question so many times, yet a definitive answer has always been difficult for me! That said, I think I have grasped the essence of the series, and that is the pure joy that every member of our team gets from working on Castlevania. Nobody gets tired of it, and we all approach each new game with our spirits and minds woven into one. I believe this enthusiasm is why we have been successful with our games."
Perhaps most importantly, Castlevania is about details.
For instance: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night — regarded by many to be the pinnacle of the series — contains an item called the Cat-Eye Circlet. Its stated function is to "restore HP by cat damage." Though few felines appear throughout the entire game, there's an item dedicated to protecting against them. So why does this practically useless item even exist? Quite simply, it's there because the designers cared enough to put it there.
The best entries in the series are filled with little touches that show the people involved are having fun. Like the ghostly groundskeeper that mourns the death of his slain dog in Super Castlevania 4 for the SNES, or the myriad hidden treasures found in the NES games, or the strange enemies in Symphony of the Night based off Wizard of Oz characters, or the bizarre assortment of chairs in Curse of Darkness. There are hidden rooms in the PC Engine version of Dracula X that still perplex gamers more than a decade after its release. Every time you replay a Castlevania game, you notice more of the little touches added by its creators — people who know and love video games.
The Origins of the Demon Castle
Konami's long-running series made its debut in 1986 on Nintendo's Famicom (the Japanese version of the NES) under the title Akumajou Dracula, or Demon Castle Dracula. Originally a floppy disk-based game for the Famicom Disk System, it made the jump to America and Europe in a new format (cartridges) and with a new name: Castlevania.
Simon Belmont brought fresh new blood to the video game scene in his trek to destroy Count Dracula. In the wake of Super Mario Bros.' success, the NES had become home to similarly lighthearted romps designed with younger children in mind. Even complicated titles like Metroid and Legend of Zelda featured cartoony illustrations in the instruction manual. Castlevania opened with a single figure walking up to a rusty, blood-covered gate in the dark of night. The game's color palette was distinctly darker than the typical NES game, with faded grey corridors, oppressive red brick hallways and dank, flooded caverns. Though light on actual gore, Castlevania was the closest you could get to a horror game on a home console at the time.
But it was more than just the spookiness that attracted gamers to Castlevania — the intense difficulty was equally compelling. By the game's third level, not even halfway to the end, players were assaulted by a relentless torrent of hopping hunchbacks and vicious crows. In the first level, Simon could withstand eight hits until he croaks; by the last level, four hits would do him in.
Much of the challenge came from the insufferably stiff controls. Simon's whip had range but not speed, and timing its snaps to hit smaller enemies was a crucial skill. Furthermore, Simon couldn't change direction mid-jump, and the game reveled in placing gamers in situations where the limited controls felt inadequate. Against such odds, it's little wonder that mastering all six stages and defeating Dracula was one of the greatest achievements any NES gamer could claim.
The sequel, Simon's Quest, took Castlevania in a completely different direction. Although the hero controlled the same, the linear levels were dropped in favor of a wide-open Transylvania with role-playing elements that drew upon Vampire Killer, a Castlevania spin-off released for the Japanese MSX console shortly after the origina game's debut. The result was much closer to Metroid than its predecessor.
The third game, Dracula's Curse, returned the series to its action-oriented roots. Despite the straightforward design, Dracula's Curse was one of the most ambitious titles on the NES, featuring advanced graphics, branching paths, and four playable characters. Positioned as a prequel to the first two games, it's exerted a strong influence on subsequent games. Magic user Sypha Belnades' descendants have shown up in numerous sequels, and Dracula's rebellious son Alucard went on to star in Symphony of the Night.
Castlevania's 16-bit debut on the Super Nintendo ditched many of these aspects in favor of fancy graphics that showed off the system's Mode 7 capabilities. Though it was a step backward in many ways, Konami improved the series' infamously stiff controls. For this remake of the original Castlevania, Simon finally gained the ability to whip in all directions, an innovation welcomed by most players, yet inexplicably lost in later titles.
A few years later, Castlevania Bloodlines took the series back to a more 8-bit style of gameplay on Sega Genesis. While Bloodlines didn't look nearly as nice as the SNES game, it featured gameplay more in line with the older games and offered two playable characters. Notably, Bloodlines serves as the prequel for the upcoming DS entry, Portrait of Ruin.
Castlevania's most notorious 16-bit entry was Dracula X: Rondo of Blood for the PC Engine Super CD (the Japanese counterpart of the TurboGrafx-16), which was hailed for its exceptional, CD-quality music. Rondo has become the most sought-after game in the series due to its rarity — it was never released outside of Japan. Though a Super NES port was published in America, it was a dramatically different game than the PC Engine version.
In 1995, the 16-bit era was coming to a close, and Sony's brand new PlayStation was abandoning antiquated 2D sprites in favor of 3D polygonal graphics. But 32-bit games offered more than just an impressive new visual dimension. With the increased space offered by the CD medium, developers could create much larger and longer games, and didn't need to resort to brutal difficulty levels to expand play time.
In such a climate, Konami feared a traditional Castlevania game would be scorned not only for its difficulty, but for its brevity as well. As the company looked to bring Castlevania into the third dimension, a small team of programmers and designers who had worked on Rondo of Blood were given the go-ahead to develop a sequel to the cult PC Engine favorite. Looking back at Simon's Quest and other similar games such as Nintendo's Super Metroid, the IGA-led team decided to meld exploration and RPG elements with the gothic action and atmosphere the series was known for. The result: Symphony of the Night.
Since the focus was no longer on creating a difficult game, the clumsy controls were abandoned to make protagonist Alucard one of the smoothest-controlling characters ever rendered in 2D. Portrayed with incredibly smooth animation and an ethereal glow that trailed after his every move (and no longer restricted to whips), Alucard was a pleasure to control. He could find and equip a multitude of weapons, wielding them with varying amounts of strength and agility. Combined with a huge variety of hidden attacks, magic spells and demonic familiars, Alucard could amount a massive arsenal to fight his father.
Symphony of the Night was a success, which has led IGA and his crew to replicate the formula on Gameboy Advance and Nintendo. While some of these 2D platformers have come close, none have quite struck the same perfect balance as Symphony. Circle of the Moon contained some of the infamous old-school Castlevania difficulty, but lost some of the smooth controls. (The dark graphics on the original, unlit GBA screen didn't help.) Harmony of Dissonance sought to replicate the high quality graphics of Symphony, but at the expense of a weakened musical score.
To date, Aria of Sorrow and its sequel Dawn of Sorrow have come the closest to recapturing the feeling of Symphony. By consolidating all of the haphazard special attacks into the broad and varied Tactical Soul System, Konami was better able to diversify the gameplay without making it feel overly chaotic. The Sorrow titles also offer a better sense of balance, with a decent but not overwhelming difficulty level. Igarashi and crew are traveling down the same road for the upcoming DS installment, Portrait of Ruin.
Castlevania vs The Third Dimension
While Symphony of the Night proved to be a surprise success in America and Japan, Konami believed that 3D was the right direction to take Castlevania. After all, many other companies were bringing their long running franchises into the world of polygons. Skipping over the Playstation, Konami's Nagoya branch was charged with creating a new title for the Nintendo 64.
Simply titled "Castlevania" in the Western territories, the N64 entry was a bit closer to the older games of the series — although some of the levels encouraged exploration, many of them were squarely focused on action and platforming, accompanied by all of the frustration of early 3D games. While the graphic designers did an excellent job in evoking a spooky atmosphere (perhaps unintentionally amplified by the rampant fog that plagued so many N64 games) the controls and camera were severely lacking.
After releasing a semi-sequel for the N64 dubbed Legacy of Darkness and cancelling a 3D installment slated for the Dreamcast, Konami spent a few years focusing solely on the portable entries. Four years later, with the PlayStation 2 proving to be more than capable of delivering a fast-paced 3D action game, Konami tried again with Lament of Innocence — this time with Symphony director Igarashi at the helm. Using Devil May Cry as a template, Igarashi created a game that controlled and felt much better than the N64 games. Even so, it was ultimately crippled due to dungeon-crawling gameplay and repetitive environments. Its successor, Curse of Darkness, refined the fighting system but ultimately suffered the same fate.
Currently, Castlevania's creators are struggling to find a perfect solution for the series. "Almost everyone would agree that the 2D platforming genre is definitely the best fit for the series," says Igarashi. "However, 3D action games are very popular today, and people expect that games on consoles will be in 3D. I feel that our ultimate goal should just be to make the best game possible, no matter whether it is in 2D or 3D. I have absorbed the criticism for all my games, both 2D and 3D, and you will certainly see adjustments in these areas in the future."
The History of Castlevania
Castlevania is a rare creation — a fantasy game series whose story maintains its own continuity yet is set within actual world history. The series' first Game Boy installment, The Castlevania Adventure, began the trend by eschewing mainstay Simon Belmont in favor of a earlier member of the vampire-hunting clan, Christopher. Dracula's Curse set the clock back a century earlier than that by focusing on the first Belmont to destroy Dracula, Trevor. With Castlevania Bloodlines, Konami attempted to intertwine the game universe with Bram Stoker's Dracula. Set in the early 20th Century, Bloodlines also brought the series closer to the modern era. It wasn't until Symphony of the Night that Konami began to plot out all of the adventures in an actual historical timeline. The series currently spans a millennium, beginning with the 11th Century exploits of Leon Belmont to the near future, where Dracula has been destroyed for good. Other long-running series — including The Legend of Zelda and Mega Man — have made varying efforts to tie their chapters together into a cohesive whole, but the result has been monstrously confusing. Castlevania is one of the few that has created a reasonable "canon" of events.
"These games were taken out of the timeline," Igarashi says, "not because I didn't work on them, but because they were considered by their directors to be side projects in the series, especially Legacy of Darkness and Circle of the Moon." he explains. "The only exception to this trend is Dark Prelude (Castlevania Legends) — I intentionally redacted it from the timeline so that it doesn't conflict with the timing used in other titles."
Looking ahead, Igarashi is still looking for ways to expand the story and welcomes feedback from fans. "I'm aware that there are large gaps in the timeline, and we will attempt to fill these in with future titles. We'll fill the gaps soon. And don't hesitate to let us know what time periods you would like to see in upcoming games!"
The Future of Castlevania
Perhaps the key to Castlevania's success is its ability to evolve and change with the times. Other classic Konami series like Contra and Gradius still have their fans, but only Castlevania remains a vital franchise. Even so, the series isn't without its detractors. The most common criticism directed towards the portable Castlevania titles, for instance, is that they spend their time trying to replicate Symphony of the Night rather than innovating.
Igarashi has hinted at a drastic reinvention for the franchise in the near future, remains steadfastly tight-lipped on the subject. Despite the hopes of numerous fans, though, he doesn't see the series' future with the Nintendo Wii. "If we were to translate Castlevania to the Wii, the expectation would be that we would find a new and outrageous use for the "Wiimote." I'm not sure we could get away with just using the traditional controller. I'm still considering different ways we can use the standard Wii controller, but am not yet happy with what has been proposed. Of course, we are always looking into expanding the series to new platforms, and the Wii is certainly one of our candidates."
Regardless of where the series goes, Konami has a built up a huge empire surrounding a simple tale of a family and their undead enemies. If nothing else, there's a movie in production, with Paul Anderson (of the Resident Evil flicks) set to direct. Dracula's immortality sucks for the never-resting Belmont clan. But for gamers, it provides nearly limitless opportunities to bring life to one gaming's most enduring series.